Saturday, December 31, 2011

Things I Learned (Again) in 2011

Posted By on Sat, Dec 31, 2011 at 8:44 AM

The novelist Philip Roth was right. Old age is not a battle, it’s a massacre. Caring for aging parents or visiting a nursing home will convince you.

Parenting never ends. Especially when employer-provided health insurance is scarce.

Teaching in public schools has gotten harder because of all the attention. A lot of the help isn’t helping.

Millions of human roaches are trying to hack your computer, email, and online information every minute. The question is not if but when one of them will succeed.

Don’t divulge any more personal information to anyone than you have to.

Good Mexican restaurants are plentiful and cheap in Memphis.

People with mechanical, carpentry, or house-painting skills will be fine in the new economy.

College liberal arts degrees are overpriced if the measure is landing a job in a lasting career.

If you eat real food you lose weight. Even if you only do it two or three days a week. Shop the perimeter of the grocery stores.

A package of 100 cable channels is worse than ten channels. If only we could pay only for the channels we want. The cable creed is “Do not let customers do this.”

If you insist on lending a book to someone “that you simply must read” you should not expect to get it back.

There is no celebrity too old, over the hill, obnoxious or dead that someone doesn’t believe that what America needs is a book about them. See the new releases at the library and the rekindling of “the enduring mystery of the death of Natalie Wood” in 1981.

Hit overheads hard. Don’t short-arm them or let them drop.

The preservationists were right about the CVS drug store on Union and the compromisers, including me, were wrong.

College football is indestructible. Scandals, soaring salaries, the glut of bowl games, coaching changes, 1-11 seasons, no playoffs, tiny crowds, nothing can kill it.

Patagonia shoes are also indestructible, but in a good way, and really comfortable.

Online bill payments with automatic renewal are an overcharge waiting to happen. A customer service call to Bangalore is a threat to your domestic tranquility, sanity, and the structural integrity of your calling devices.

Those who have been saying illegitimacy is our biggest social problem, most recently outgoing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, are right.

Bike riders have their own brand of road rage.

Really good neighborhoods get better in hard times. So do good schools because there is a flight to stability and quality.

Mega-churches may be the most important social glue in Greater Memphis.

Privacy will be The Next Big Thing because there are so many intrusions on it, from the Internet to airport pat-downs.

Learning is not the same as retaining.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Confessions of an 80-cent Tax Scofflaw

Posted By on Wed, Dec 28, 2011 at 9:51 AM

Just spent several minutes paying 80 cents by credit card to the Illinois Tollway for an unpaid toll on the way to O'Hare Airport after Christmas.

To all those who think that toll roads are a good idea for Memphis, please think again. The impulse to get other people to pay a share of our taxes is understandable. But there are unintended consequences, as this little jaunt illustrates.

Interstate 294 around Chicago is a toll road that is sometimes a faster option than Interstate 94, which is "free" but goes through the city. There are manned and unmanned stations every few miles. Regular drivers flash an "I Pass" and speed right through. At manned stations, you can fork over your money to an attendant, who will make change and maybe even give you directions. At unmanned stations, including the last one before the airport, drivers must pay the exact amount, which is 80 cents. Bills are not accepted.

I was alone and driving a rental and had exhausted my supply of change, plus a dime borrowed from the guy in the car behind me, at the previous unmanned station, where the toll was 30 cents. I was cutting my flight connection close and would gladly have paid $1 or even $5 to the Land of Lincoln, but no way. Coins only. Get out of the car and hit up a stranger for 80 cents. Or speed through and pay later, which I did.

To do that, you go to Illinois Tollway's website, which is not to be confused with the Illinois tollroad website, which is a collection of ads and links to "how to" sites.

Then you fill out your information, complete five steps, and your card is charged 80 cents. If you don't do this within seven days of the violation, the cost can be as much as $20.

This may not be the most aggravating government hassle of the season but it's close. The lesson is that the fine for minor motor vehicle violations — tolls, speeding tickets, parking tickets — is often only part of the story. Which is one reason why I don't like the idea of privatizing parking meters in downtown. The lack of a dime can get you a $20 parking ticket, and if you pile up three of those you get a bigger fine and/or a day in court. I prefer the present system with its inefficiencies. A toll station on Interstate 55 at the Mississippi line or on the Arkansas side of the Interstate 40 bridge might seem like a good idea until you're the one getting stuck in a traffic jam or fined $20 for want of 50 cents.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brunettes, Jocks, Cooking Shows, and Other Gifts that Keep Giving

Posted By on Tue, Dec 27, 2011 at 2:56 PM

It’s the end of the year. Our office is closed for a week. The editor says we got to fill this space anyway. So here goes.

Home for the Holidays. It's nice to go home and see the old places looking good. West Michigan not only doesn't have any snow, the grass is green. I climbed a sand dune near Benton Harbor the day after Christmas and people were walking the beach on Lake Michigan. Not even skim ice on the inland lakes near Grand Rapids that we used to play hockey on over break. Eds and Meds seem to be keeping the area going, but it's been a bad decade for pyramids. Steelcase office furniture closed its pyramid-shaped headquarters in GR, and General Motors closed its factory a few years ago. United posted a last-minute $156 round-trip fare from Memphis to O'Hare, leaving a three-hour drive around the lake on Christmas Eve, which was a pleasure, listening to the Lions beat San Diego and make the playoffs. The flight was two hours late because of a delay in Denver. Memphian Michael Lightman was getting off the plane, and he said the problem was a delay in Durango. In Durango they're probably blaming the dog. I bet the pilot we wouldn't take off before 1 p.m. He burned rubber backing away from the gate, taxied at about 100, took the u-turn on two wheels and won the bet by seven seconds. I made a note to call the FAA after I climbed down from the ceiling.

Fashion. Looking good and good looks are not the same. A newspaper reporter doesn’t know much more about fashion that a cow does, but at least reporters can report what they see. And what I see in downtown Memphis on the sartorial front does not bode well for high-end haberdashery. Mayor A C Wharton is one of the last of the sharp dressers. There's a joke that he mows the lawn in a shirt and tie, and maybe he does. City Hall and the courts are one of the few downtown places where you see men in suits and women in heels. Dressing up for work is going the way of fedoras and shoeshine stands. The bank headquarters are all gone, except for First Tennessee. Ad agencies are consolidating and moving out of downtown, and some of the ones still around are casually hip. The Glankler Brown law firm left. Morgan Keegan is endangered, and so is Pinnacle Airlines, even before it completes its move into One Commerce Square. Some of the other big downtown employers: MLG&W is strictly utilitarian in every sense; AutoZone is a fine company but a suit salesman’s nightmare of black pants and gray or red shirts on the rank-and-file and the executives; At The Commercial Appeal, not even the publisher wears a tie; and at the University of Memphis Law School, every day is casual Friday.

Social media. Facebook has 800 million members. I bet it is 500 million in three years. The lack of any assurance of privacy is the Achilles heel. Facebook is planning an IPO (initial public offering) of stock next year. For a publicly traded company, what good are all those members and friends if you can’t share their information with someone who wants to sell them something? One look at your email inbox should make you think twice. Another opportunity for spammers and hackers.

The Big Shrink. Developer Henry Turley says his fellow commercial real estate pros are preparing for the coming era of much smaller offices, and fewer of them, as people work at home and on computers. I was struck by all the excess space when I visited the office of a full-service brokerage firm last week, and even moreso a month ago when I did a story on a commercial real estate pro who has left a big expensive office in Peabody Place, appointed with art work, leather chairs, huge tables and desks, expensive paneling, and all the other trimmings. Maybe some version of “Mad Men” in 2030 will take a nostalgic look back at the era of office excess.

Books, and movies. When it came out last spring I thought James Stewart’s “Tangled Webs” was the most important nonfiction book of the year, and I didn’t see anything after that to make me change my mind. His analysis of public corruption, perjury, and enablers has special relevance to Memphis. Another winner: I bet there is more truth than fiction in John Weisman’s “KBL: Kill Bin Laden” billed as “a novel based on true events.” In fiction, I'm amazed at how Lee Child keeps churning out terrific thrillers in his Jack Reacher series. The 2011 offering, “The Affair,” is set in northeast Mississippi and has a couple of scenes in Memphis. If I’m stranded on a desert island (or in an airport) I want the Reacher series and a magic genie and two more wishes. The other series I always recommend to people is Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker mysteries. Estleman works on a 1950 manual typewriter, and Walker is a Detroit private eye who lives by the code. "Infernal Angels" is about the proprietor of Past Presence (“Everything you require for the modern regressive lifestyle”). Child's series jumps back and forth in time, but Amos Walker has aged steadily and chronologically through 21 tales. Finally, the late Christopher Hitchens (“Arguably”) won’t be easy to replace as an essayist. A secular humanist, conversationalist, humorist, William Buckley without the conservative politics or the wardrobe.

Television and media: Food shows are brilliant. Colorful contestants, interesting new wrinkles, and clever hosts. I love "Chopped," and I had Geoffrey all the way on "The Iron Chef." "The Good Wife" is Mr. Crankypants’ favorite non-reality show. Late to the party as usual, I got hooked on it in 2011. It’s all about the beautiful women with black hair, black eyes, black clothes and attitudes. Kalinda is Hottie of the Year. Julianna Margulies is runner-up, but her best work was in the movie “City Island.” Lea Michele of "Glee" is second runner-up. "Glee" is ridiculous. Those high schoolers must be about 30. Fox shows always go over the top but I’d have quit every sport, trashed my Chuck Taylors, and joined the glee club if Lea was in it.

Health and fitness and sports. As I get older, the desire to play sports gets stronger and the desire to watch other people play them, especially pros, gets weaker. It's weird how sports loyalties endure. I have not lived in Michigan for 40 years but still root for the Red Wings, Tigers, and Lions, all of whom had good years in 2011. They say the Catholic Church has you after your childhood, and teams do too. I’m surprised that people spend $40 a ticket or more to sit in the nosebleed seats at an NBA game. The St. Jude Marathon is still most impressive local participant sports event, with 13,000 people running 5k or 26 miles. I’m sweating though if I have to find sponsors for the tennis tournament, golf tournament, and minor sports with our corporate community shrinking. I think Peter King of Sports Illustrated is an exemplary reporter. His Monday notes, analysis, commentary, and reporting on Sunday’s games are better than the games themselves. What a workhorse he is. Another sportswriter, Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, is also really good — funny, serious, and original in the difficult twice-a-week format that limits the timely topics.

News Media. The Wall Street Journal has changed a lot under Rupert Murdoch from a business newspaper to more of a general interest newspaper with daily reports on fashion, sports, and fitness and health. The Journal’s brand has always been separation of reporting and the editorial page. The reporting is so good it can and should be a course syllabus in Journalism 101. Compassionate, wide-ranging, fair, fiends on attribution and accuracy. But after 30 years I can’t read the editorials or the Oped columnists with the exception of Dorothy Rabinowitz who manages to be tough as nails, brilliant, jaded, always interesting, and look like a fascinating woman in a Woody Allen movie. I still admire the Journal's disdain for on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand columns. The New York Times put up a pay wall, and I paid. Gail Collins is great. So is Maureen Dowd. I can’t make it through a Thomas Friedman column though, much less his latest book, "That Used to Be Us." David Brooks is good in his back and forth with Collins but otherwise kind of blah. Why don’t conservatives ever criticize their own? On the list of Things I Don't Do Much Any More: watch the national news at 5:30 p.m. Bad timing. I’ve checked national papers several times already, and the drug commercials drive me crazy. Boniva my ass. Sally Field is the Devil. Local television reporters work really hard and do their work well for the most part. Like baseball infielders, the more chances you get the more errors you are going to make and there were some beauts in 2011. Do we need four stations for saturation coverage of Kapone the lost dog? In local print media, paid obituaries have become an art form and a bright light of community journalism.

Random Notes. Occupy Memphis makes no sense to me, and like that three-story American flag in front of Guardsmark’s building after 9/11 I don’t see an ending. I want to cry when I see a story about a Memphis area man or woman who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Make an extra visit to the Little Tea Shop next year to help Suhair and the staff recover the time it was closed due to family illness in 2011. The television commercials for Red Lobster and the hot dogs at Sonic make me want to go there right now. Ghost River beer is great. Congrats to Chuck and the gang.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Us and Them: 2012

Do “white” projects jump the line at the city council?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 at 3:03 PM

It was the familiar undercurrent of the debate about Overton Square last week. The charge has been made many times before and will doubtless be made again in 2012: Public and private projects that white people want get favorable treatment at the expense of projects that benefit black people and black neighborhoods.

Overton Square got $16 million in public funding for a parking garage and a floodwater detention basin. There were a lot of Overton Square supporters in the audience, although there were bigger crowds this year at meetings on schools and budgets. Most of them were white. A notable exception was Ekundayo Bandele, the founder of Hattiloo Theatre, which is part of the mix. He got a standing ovation after he said, "This is an opportunity for us to make the Memphis we deserve."

The rest of the evening was not so pleasant. The co-sponsors of the motion, councilmen Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland, called it "rough" and "grueling." Colleagues Wanda Halbert, Joe Brown, and Harold Collins argued during debate that while Loeb Properties and Overton Square were getting the holiday special, Orange Mound, North Memphis, and Whitehaven have greater needs for flood control, redevelopment, and blight removal that are being ignored.

Brown made a similar point earlier that day during a discussion of neighborhood opposition to undesirable businesses. North Memphis, he said in so many words, is full of them. Halbert said her district has flooded underpasses and such. And Collins said Elvis Presley Boulevard has been ignored for decades.

Ed Ford Jr., who also represents Whitehaven, said he would support Overton Square as "a leap of faith" but predicted "it will come up every time we say we don't have the money."

Ford nailed it. Brown, Halbert, and Collins did not.

Whitehaven, unfortunately as it turned out, hitched its star to megadeveloper Robert Sillerman's $200 million plans for Graceland. A persistent focus on, say, a relatively modest $16 million in street improvements would almost certainly have passed the council years ago. Brown, a Memphis native, and Halbert, a former school board member, know that Manassas High School and Douglass High School owe their new buildings to school board member Sara Lewis and former councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware.

Memphis has had a black mayor and director of housing and community development for 20 years. During that time, Memphis has rebuilt or air-conditioned its schools and replaced most of its public housing. Willie Herenton and A C Wharton, along with former school board chairman Martavius Jones and HCD director Robert Lipscomb, have been evenhanded about spreading around capital spending, favors, and criticism.

But let's face it. While the goal of broad-minded Memphians may be to live in racial harmony, we are a city of self-segregated schools, neighborhoods, churches, musical preferences, movies, and sports. And our everyday vocabulary includes code words like "optional schools" and "urban" and "hip-hop" and "soccer moms."

Yes, there are crossovers. Some play it both ways. Soulsville. The Grizzlies. Craig Brewer. Beale Street. Tunica casinos. Libraries.

But, honestly, can you look at a crowd shot of an SEC football game or a University of Memphis basketball game and not say to yourself, "Damn, that's a whole lotta white people" even though the majority of players are black?

Or everyone at a baseball game at any level? Or the runners in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon? Or everyone at a soccer game? Or the city council chambers or the school board auditorium when bike lanes or optional schools are on the agenda? Or the fans at the pro tennis tournament at the Racquet Club? Or the candlelight vigil during Elvis Week?

Conversely, can you look at a picture of the Southern Heritage Classic or the COGIC convention and not say to yourself, "That's a black thing"? Or a rap concert. Or The Commercial Appeal's "Best of Preps" city-league football team or basketball teams for both girls and boys. Or a crowded city bus? Or the waiting room at the Med? Or the picnic area at Overton Park? Or an AFSCME rally?

Post-racial America is highfalutin hooey, but Memphis can, just maybe, do better if politicians focus on the merits, not the colors. There are plenty of reasons to question publicly funded boat docks, bike lanes, golf courses, and parking garages, but the fact that they're supported mainly by white people is not one of them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Updated: City Council Approves Overton Square

Posted By on Tue, Dec 20, 2011 at 1:58 PM

The Overton Square redevelopment proposal from Loeb Properties was approved by the City Council Tuesday.

Cheered on by a largely Midtown crowd of spectators, the Council approved funding for a parking garage and floodwater detention basin that will enable Loeb Properties to go ahead with its plans to spend $19 million redeveloping Overton Square.

The two-hour meeting Tuesday was interrupted several times by applause for Loeb Properties’ plans for a theater district including a relocated Hattiloo Theater, a black repertory company.

Approval came over the objections of council members Wanda Halbert, Joe Brown, and Harold Collins, who tried to delay the vote until next year. But supporters said the delay would effectively have killed the projects. Collins did, however, win verbal assurances that Elvis Presley Boulevard would get moved to the top of the list for capital improvements next year.

The Overton Square project includes $16 million in city and federal funds for flood control and a parking garage that will be owned by the city. The flooding problem in Midtown comes from Lick Creek, which is just west of Overton Square.

Robert Loeb said his company will spend $19 million as follows: $8.5 million for property acquisition, $5 million for rehabilitation of existing buildings, $5 million for new construction, and $500,000 to cover operating losses during construction. Hattiloo Theater will try to raise an additional $4 million and the owners of the abandoned French Quarter Inn plan to replace it with a new $10 million hotel. And Loeb said that if a grocery store were to be in the mix “then our investment would go up.”

The resolution was sponsored by councilmen Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland, who had the support of the Wharton administration and a majority of their colleagues. But it was not a slam dunk. Councilman Ed Ford Jr. said he was taking “a leap of faith” that the council would make good on promises to tend to other flooded parts of the city. Councilman Janice Fullilove did not vote on the motion to approve the project, but did get enough votes to defeat her nemesis, Chairman Myron Lowery, on a procedural vote that led up to it. And Collins was not appeased.

“I’m going to be a little bit cynical today,” he said, before showing pictures of Elvis Presley Boulevard in what he took to be a deteriorated state. “This street has needed repairs and redevelopment for decades.”

The Lick Creek flooding affects homes in a swath of Midtown from the fairgrounds to Chelsea Avenue, but the number of homes is not known. Strickland conceded that the 4,400 homes estimate that has been published several times is not in the engineering study and he doesn’t know where it came from.

An online petition supporting the project had 2025 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, and a separate show of support for Hattiloo Theater could muster more than 100 theater fans.

Hattiloo, located on the edge of downtown, hopes to become part of a Midtown theater district at Overton Square, joining Playhouse on the Square and smaller venues.

NOTE: This post has been rewritten. An earlier version incorrectly said that Councilwoman Fullilove voted for the project. (JB)

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Behind the "Highest Air Fares" in Memphis

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Memphis gets tagged with some bad publicity on dubious merits from time to time, but our reputation for high air fares has been earned fair and square.

As has been widely reported, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics ranks Memphis number one among 100 U.S. airports, with an average fare of $476.22, in the most recent quarterly report. But behind the numbers there are . . . a lot more numbers showing basically the same thing.

Dave Smallen, the media contact for the Bureau, compiled stats on fares for every quarter for the last 16 years. Memphis has been 7-32 percent higher than the national average each quarter. There were two quarters in 2000 when Memphis veered close to the national average, but since then the gap has grown to a comfortable double-digit margin.

Memphis passenger traffic is dominated by Delta, as reported in a Flyer story in November. The second-highest average fares are in Cincinnati, which is also a Delta hub.

Average plane ticket prices are up 30 percent since 2000 and up 9 percent since one year ago.

Memphis ranks 65th in passenger origination and destinations, while Cincinnati is 58th.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Memphis Looks to Charlotte Public Schools

Posted By on Mon, Dec 12, 2011 at 3:23 PM

The last time that Memphis and Charlotte were mentioned in the local news together was 1993, when the North Carolina city won one of the two NFL expansion franchises that Memphis had long sought.

On Monday, Memphis will again look to Charlotte, this time at its racially diverse consolidated public school system with more than 135,000 students. The Transition Planning Commission meets at Christian Brothers University's Sabbatini Lounge with leaders of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

Since 1993, Charlotte, the home of Bank of America, has left Memphis in the dust. Not only does it have an NFL team, its population grew 35 percent between 2000-2010, while Memphis declined .5 percent despite annexations. Its growth since 2000 has exceeded even Nashville by 300 percent.

In public education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is famous as the city that gave America busing for desegregation after a series of court cases and failed efforts to establish an integrated school system. Today, the system has substantial white, black, hispanic, and Asian populations. The combined Memphis and Shelby County system, by today's numbers, will be about 75 percent black.

The Transition Team, which was joined by the new joint school board, looked not so much at the consolidation in Charlotte, which occurred in 1960, but at the system's ability to raise student achievement for all students and maintain a racially diverse population.

Fast facts on Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 136,000 students, 168 schools, 9 school board members; 53 percent of students are economically disadvantaged; 42 percent black, 32 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic; $1.15 billion operating budget; 40 magnet schools that attract 25,000 students.

The four visitors included a former superintendent, the current board chairman, a former school board member, and a former principal. The system won a national award this year for excellence in urban education, but this was not a butt-patting session.

“Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed,” said former superintendent Pete Gorman.

He urged the committee to “build a bench” of future principals and assistant principals from among promising young teachers; move good principals and five teachers as a group to the toughest schools but not against their will; give new leadership three years to turn around a school; give good schools more autonomy; measure improvement, not raw scores, so that even college-prep schools must show improvement year over year; pick a superintendent for the consolidated district sooner rather than later; give the schools with the poorest students the most money, and give the wealthiest schools the least money; and expect to move on if you are the superintendent that has to close schools.

“You can’t close schools well,” he said, adding that "to do the job well, I sometimes question if it's physically possible."

Some differences between Memphis and Charlotte quickly became clear in the question-and-answer session. Charlotte’s downtown is its biggest economic engine, much moreso than the suburbs. The state legislature blocked efforts of municipalities to set up separate school systems and the number of school districts in the state has shrunk from 175 to 115. The cap on charter schools has been lifted, and this year there 20 applications were approved. Gorman said he expects “a glut of them,” perhaps more than 100. Arthur Griffin, a former board member, said the public schools went after private-school students with some success.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Skaters Shun Helmets and Warnings

Posted By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 6:48 PM

A week after a 12-year-old skateboarder was taken away from the new Memphis Skate Park by a police officer, handcuffed, and put in a squad car for not wearing a helmet, the majority of skaters seem to prefer not wearing helmets.

The park attracted about 30 people on a sunny Friday afternoon and most of them were not wearing helmets. On Tuesday, the Memphis City Council passed an ordinance requiring "the use of helmets for personal safety during skating and other activities within the skate parks." Violators face a $50 fine and a court appearance.

Signs at the park says "Skate At Your Own Risk" and "all participants must wear a helmet."

City attorney Herman Morris Jr. said the Division of Parks and the council have fulfilled their duty.

"We think it gives adequate notice," he said.

He declined to comment on the police arrest last week.

The city's liability is limited to $300,000 per injured individual. Morris said claims of personal injury "are all over the map" for everything from car accidents to slip-and-falls to grass-cutting crews kicking up pebbles to bicyclists getting tires caught in the Madison Avenue Trolley tracks. The city budget includes a self-insured fund in anticipation of claims.

Bikers under the age of 16 are required to wear helmets by state law. Morris said that in car-bike accidents, those involved generally wind up suing each other rather than the city.

The Help: Schools Have Lots of It These Days

Posted By on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 11:39 AM

H. L. Mencken said "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." There are several variations on that theme, from Woody Allen ("Those who can't teach teach gym") to the unknown cynic who said "Those who can't teach administer." Professional skeptic James Randi has collected several of them on his website.

Here's one more: Those who neither do nor teach consult or tell others how to teach.

In nearly 30 years of on-and-off reporting on local schools, I can't remember a time when there have been so many educational entrepreneurs, consultants, advocates, advisers, foundations, and reformers hovering around the Memphis and Shelby County public schools.

A list, probably incomplete, would include The Gates Foundation, the Hyde Foundation, the online education outfit K12, Teach Plus, Stand For Children, the MCS Teaching and Learning Academy, the consultants advising the suburbs on forming their own separate school systems, State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, the federal No Child Left Behind standards, Teach For America, The Council of the Great City Schools, the Memphis Urban League, the U.S. Education Department's Race to the Top program, and at least a half dozen lawyers or law firms that weighed in on the consolidation process. Plus assorted PTAs, bloggers, columnists, and authors.

The newest addition to the mix is the Boston Consulting Group, which was chosen Thursday to advise the Transition Planning Commission. The consultants will be paid $1.7 million to prepare a merger plan by August 2012.

Some of these organizations put teachers in classrooms. Some of them advise from the sidelines. Some provide millions of dollars in funding. Some siphon teachers away from traditional schools. Some encourage parents and students to remain in traditional schools. Some help teachers network. Some measure the progress that teachers and their students are making, or are not making.

All are drawn to what is the biggest school system merger in American history. Teachers must feel like a patient with a mysterious disease who is prodded, poked, stared at, monitored, and tested by doctors at a hospital. They must long for the days when the PTA came through with classroom supplies, cookies, and a pat on the back.

How much actual reform there will be remains to be seen. It's not great dog food if the dogs don't eat it.

What we know for sure is this. Concerned parents will do whatever they have to do to get their kid into a good school. Suburbs are deadly serious about separate systems. "Choice" and "options" are other words for escape hatches. The hardest part of public education is teaching in urban schools, with 25-35 students in five classes a day. The fastest burnout is among classroom teachers. The pressing question for a classroom teacher is "what do I do Monday?" The stress is why they leave.

Now throw an observer, more paperwork, shorter planning periods, harder test standards, and longer hours into the job description. One of the best and most idealistic young teachers I know said "to heck with it" this semester, and it wasn't because of the pay.

But at least there's no shortage of advice.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Picks: Hugh Freeze and Tony Dungy

Posted By on Sun, Dec 4, 2011 at 1:45 PM

Tony Dungy
  • Tony Dungy
Anyone can speculate about the next football coaches at Memphis and Ole Miss so why shouldn't I?

Based on hunches, scuttlebutt, knowing looks, wild surmises, personal preference, overheard conversations, pregnant pauses, and pure guesswork, here are my two predictions.

Hugh Freeze for the Memphis job. Great record at Arkansas State — 10-2 this year including a 47-3 win over Memphis. Seen as a possible Urban Meyer up-and-comer by some local influential fans and boosters. Former football and girls basketball coach at Briarcrest. Former assistant coach at Ole Miss. Makes $210,000, so a raise to $750,000 would be huge, in fact so huge he might quietly defer some of it for hiring top assistants. Could probably win six or more games next year, given the weak schedule Memphis plays.

Tony Dungy, 56, for Ole Miss. Knows Archie Manning, who's doing the search. Coached Peyton with the Colts. Overqualified to be an NFL analyst, and to me looks awkward interviewing players far younger than he is. Has had tragedy in his life, so he's thoughtful and reflective and, well, different. Wow factor. Quarterback specialist, and that's where it starts.

Bonus pick: Lee Fowler for Memphis athletic director, although even faculty members and deans told me last week that the process of picking a coach and then an A.D. is bewildering to them. Fowler knows Memphis. And I liked him as a Vanderbilt basketball player in the Seventies. Has anyone seen Jeff Fosnes?

If I am correct on this I win $2 from by buddy and colleague Greg Akers, which will make it priceless.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rube: The Coolest Guy I Ever Knew

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 11:05 PM

Michael Rubenstein
  • Jackson Free Press
  • Michael Rubenstein
Some people are great musicians, some are great singers, some are great talkers or great athletes. John Michael Rubenstein, "Rube" to his friends, died this week at his home in Jackson, Mississippi at the age of 60. He had the gift of "cool."

Rube was the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and, before that, a first-rate television sports anchor and reporter for WLBT in Jackson. He was a man of the world, a Vanderbilt graduate, a native of Booneville, and one of my first friends when I moved to Nashville 40 years ago.

We were waiters at the University Club at Vanderbilt, wearing white coats and black pants and toting trays of drinks and iced tea and sandwiches to the faculty at lunch and dinner. Rube and the professional waiters, all of whom were black, had a presence that set them apart from the rest of us, and it was recognized by our boss and our customers. They might look down on us, but they didn't condescend to Rube, a skinny guy with a hawk nose and a one-liner for any occasion.

Seven years later, after I moved away and came back to Mississippi, we reconnected at the Mayflower restaurant. He was the sports anchor at WLBT and I was working for UPI, which was supposed to deliver sports scores for the late-night newscast. If the Atlanta bureau was late, which it often was, Rube let us have it.

"UPI snooooozing in Atlanta," he would say if the Braves score was missing.

Or "You can't spell stupid without u-p-i," his favorite.

I loved it, and him, even as he ripped us. His voice, his delivery, was so damn cool.

After work we would meet at the George Street Grocery for drinks, where a bartender named Cotton would welcome us. Politicians and lobbyists and even future governors took a back seat. Rube was the man. He could talk politics, sports, books, travel, you name it, and sound smarter than anyone at the bar.

And women. Once we were discussing the merits of some beauty and speculating about what circumstances, if any, might allow a man to engage in relations with her. After endless blather, Rube summed it up.

"No harm, no foul."

After I moved to Memphis, a trip through Jackson usually included a meal with Rube at Hal and Mal's restaurant or a driving tour of downtown or Farish Street or Belhaven. Rube had as sharp an eye for urban renewal as any PhD and knew more about the city than any developer or professor. His language was pure Elmore Leonard. On a pro football player's investment in downtown he said approvingly that "he didn't buy a bigger Bentley."

He was a huge fan of Jackson State's football team, marching band, and dance team, especially Mearl Purvis, now a Memphis news anchor. His annual holiday card featured him grinning with a line of beautiful J-Settes.

He vowed that the hall of fame would not be "jock straps under glass." He would open up early for me and my children so I could point out the tennis players I remembered or the athletes I recognized or make a lame attempt to recreate the broadcast call on Billy Cannon's Halloween touchdown punt return against Ole Miss in 1959. From Archie Manning to Walter Payton, Rube knew all of the great athletes from the seventies on. And they knew and respected him, as Jackson Clarion-Ledger sportswriter Rick Cleveland noted in this piece.

Rube was a gentleman, a runner and swimmer, a world traveler, a reader, a gardener, a Final Four fan, a proud Mississippian, and a great friend. I had a bad feeling things had gone south when I didn't hear from him for several months by phone or email this football season. He once said he didn't have a cellphone because "nobody told me they can't find me." He went out bravely, without self pity, complaint, or long farewells. Cool.

Public School Escape Hatches

Posted By on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 1:05 PM

What do a star football player at St. George's private school, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and former mayor Willie Herenton have in common?

They're all threats to the future consolidated Memphis and Shelby County public school system, which is going to be riddled with escape hatches that could potentially draw away tens of thousands of students and the state dollars that go with them.

Omar Williams, pictured in The Commercial Appeal today, is a running back at St. George's who transferred from Manassas High School. He is one of several black athletes who have gone from Memphis public schools to private schools such as St. George's, Briarcrest, and MUS. The best known include Elliot Williams, who went to St. George's before playing basketball at Duke and Memphis, and Michael Oher, who went to Briarcrest before starring at Ole Miss and in the NFL. Competitive private schools welcome such student athletes — and some of their non-jock classmates — for reasons of altruism, diversity, and winning championships. Recruiting is not just for colleges. Look at all the University of Memphis basketball players who went to private academies whose specialty is prepping the cream of the crop for careers at Division 1 powerhouse schools and, perhaps, the NBA. I'm surprised Memphis doesn't have such an "academy" for jocks right here at home already.

Keith McDonald is the most prominent no-ifs-ands-or-buts-about-it proponent of separate suburban school systems. Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, and Millington are all studying the prospects. That represents a potential loss of tens of thousands of students to the consolidated Shelby County system two years from now.

Charter schools are a third escape hatch. The joint school board this week denied new applications, but the board and MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash seem to have a different point of view than Education Commissioner Huffman. See Jackson Baker's blog post here.

Herenton is one of the applicants for multiple charter schools. He told me Friday he has appealed the denial of his application to the state treasurer's office, which will look at the impact on finances. A decision is expected in a month. If the treasurer rejects the school board's claim that charters adversely effect budgets, then Herenton will appeal to the education commissioner, who could direct the school board to approve the application.

"The unified board has not adequately read the future of the Memphis and Shelby county public school system," Herenton said. "They have not accepted that the educational arena is going to change even more dramatically n the future. MCS has been a colossal failure in terms of educating the children in the inner city and in poverty. Parents, students and teachers deserve the opportunity to participate in a variety of programs."

Herenton is a former MCS superintendent. Asked what he would do today if he was in Kriner Cash's shoes, he said "if educators and board members are really concerned about improving academics, then they shouldn’t care who is given leadership. They have to put children first, but they have put their own interests first."

Cash and board members say they are just trying to operate within their budget, and they have to employ roughly the same number of people and cover the same overhead, at least in the short run, despite the influx and outflow of students.

They're fighting on multiple fronts. It sometimes looks like a rearguard action because charters have by and large avoided close scrutiny and get pretty good press in Memphis and Nashville.

But setting up a new school much less a new system is hard and expensive. Sooner or later, MCS/SCS will have to stop playing defense and go on offense — in other words, make the positive case for a big unified school system with veteran teachers, principals, coaches, marching bands, extracurricular activities, no tuition, proud tradition, bus routes, neighborhood identity, stability, whatever. The appeal will have to be "why you should choose us" not "why you should not be allowed to leave us."

Once deregulation begins, there is no stopping it. There is a very good chance that the future consolidated system could become the current MCS system, minus hundreds if not thousands of its most athletic, college-bound, and motivated students and parents. That's the thing about escape hatches.

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